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Seattle Storm enter new era after loss of Breanna Stewart in free agency

It’s the end of an era for the Seattle Storm. Superstar forward Breanna Stewart, who played the first six seasons of her WNBA career in Seattle, announced on Wednesday that she’ll be signing with the New York Liberty for 2023, more or less ending the Storm’s status as a title contender.

New York Liberty v Seattle Storm
Two-time Finals MVP Breanna Stewart has chosen to sign with the New York Liberty in free agency, effectively closing the Seattle Storm’s championship window.
Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

Breanna Stewart has officially made her long-awaited free agency decision, choosing to sign with the New York Liberty after playing the first six seasons of her WNBA career with the Seattle Storm. The 2018 league MVP and 2018 and 2020 Finals MVP announced her decision via Twitter on Wednesday, putting months of speculation to rest.

Stewart’s decision is expected to create a ripple effect throughout the WNBA as other teams that were waiting on her begin to fill out their own rosters. Needless to say, the Storm will be hit particularly hard by Stewart’s decision, which will likely change the course of the franchise as its championship window closes and it enters an era of uncertainty; the team still has All-WNBA guard and Olympian Jewell Loyd on its roster after signing her to a large contract last offseason, but not much beyond that, and barring another star signing in Seattle, the team is closer to a rebuilding phase than any sort of championship contention.

Technically, Stewart has yet to actually sign with the Liberty, and ESPN’s Holly Rowe mentioned during a televised free agency roundtable on Wednesday that a sign-and-trade could be in the works, in which case the Storm would at least get some kind of asset in return. What we do know is that Stewart will not be playing for Seattle next season, nor will Stephanie Talbot, who signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Sparks.

By the numbers*

Free agents (type) (2022 salary)

  • Gabby Williams (restricted) ($144,000)
  • Epiphanny Prince (unrestricted) ($115,000)
  • Jantel Lavender (unrestricted) ($72,141)
  • Ezi Magbegor (reserved) ($60,471)
  • Tina Charles (unrestricted) ($34,285)

Total average salary of free agents: $425,897

Total team salary: $394,936

Cap space: $1,025,564


Chicago Sky v Seattle Storm
Center Ezi Magbegor is due for a significant pay raise after playing at a Defensive Player of the Year-level for much of 2022.
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Currently, the Storm have only two players under contract: Loyd and center Mercedes Russell. They haven’t made any signings yet, but the loss of Stewart significantly alters what Seattle might want to do from here on.

The Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces, who signed forwards Candace Parker and Alysha Clark on Wednesday, have dominated the WNBA’s current free agency period to this point, essentially establishing “superteams” that comfortably puts them ahead of every other team in the league. This is, of course, to Seattle’s detriment; with Stewart gone and Sue Bird retired, the Storm no longer have the high-end talent to compete with the likes of the Liberty or the Aces.

The question, then, will be if Seattle still tries to field as competitive of a team as possible in 2023 or approaches the season as more of a developmental one instead.

Will Courtney Vandersloot be Bird’s heir?

The Storm entered the post-Bird era with no immediate in-house replacement for the legendary point guard. Briann January also retired after 2022, having played 14 seasons in the WNBA, while 13-year veteran Prince’s future with the team is unknown; if she’s brought back, it seems unlikely that it would be in a role much larger than the one she’s been playing off the Storm’s bench.

It’s been speculated that longtime Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot would be open to joining the Storm in 2023, and for a brief moment on Wednesday, it looked like that would happen. However, Vandersloot’s representatives were quick to push back on those initial reports, and as of Wednesday night, she remains unsigned.

On the surface, signing Vandersloot would make sense for the Storm. The WNBA’s current record-holder for most assists in a season, Vandersloot was born in Kent, Washington and played collegiate basketball at Gonzaga University in Spokane; if she wants to play closer to home, Seattle would be the obvious choice, and the Storm will have the cap space to make Vandersloot, who has already announced that she won’t be returning to Chicago, an enticing offer.

Vandersloot has also been linked to the Liberty and the Minnesota Lynx, however, and if she wants to compete for a WNBA championship in 2023, both teams might be better options than Seattle. If this is the case, Seattle could choose to bolster its point guard position through the draft; currently, the earliest the Storm will pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft is No. 8 overall, and if they’re looking to take a guard with that pick, players like Charisma Osborne (UCLA), Jacy Sheldon (Ohio State), Ashley Owusu (Virginia Tech) and Celeste Taylor (Duke) would be possibilities. The Storm also own the rights to Australian guard Jade Melbourne, who they selected in the third round of the 2022 WNBA Draft; Melbourne is still very young at just 20 years old, but this season could be the perfect opportunity for her to make her WNBA debut on a team in desperate need of her skills.

Magbegor will be a key building block for Seattle

It isn’t all doom and gloom for Seattle. The Storm figure to have one of the game’s up-and-coming international stars in Magbegor, and they’ll have her exclusive negotiating rights after extending a qualifying offer to her last week.

Magbegor made visible strides in 2022, averaging 11.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game as the Storm’s starting center and anchored what was the league’s best defense during that period. Magbegor’s role on the team diminished after the team signed Charles — putting a damper on what was shaping up to be a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season — but the Storm are in no danger of losing her to another team, and they’ll surely reward her development with a new contract for 2023 and beyond.

Will Williams be able to play?

Another Storm player due for a raise is Williams, whose status as a restricted free agent will give Seattle a chance to match any offer made by a rival team and keep her on for 2023.

Williams may not even get a chance to play, however. In accordance with the WNBA prioritization clause that takes effect this year, any player who is not with their respective WNBA team by the start of the regular season will automatically be suspended by the league for the entirety of the season.

That’s a problem for Williams, who is currently playing overseas for French basketball club LDLC ASVEL Féminin. The end of the Ligue Féminine de Basketball season will overlap with the beginning of the 2023 WNBA season, meaning that Williams could be forced to take the summer off. If that’s the case, the Storm will be down one of their most athletic players and their best defensive playmaker on the perimeter.

* All salary numbers come from Her Hoop Stats.